How We Standardize Our Students’ Voices, and Why It’s a Problem
“So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity–I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.” – Gloria Anzaldua, from “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”
As a teacher of language, I find that I’m often caught between contrary instincts about how to teach voice. I think voice done well is one of the most powerful elements of writing. This applies to all writing, not just what we tend to label as “creative writing.”
Here, though, I’m talking about argument writing, because that’s what I teach.
In my classroom, my first instinct is to follow the rules that were drilled into me by almost all of my teachers. That instinct tells me that I should push traditional rules of writing. These rules say your voice must be neutral, third person, and use standard grammar. Following these rules, the idea goes, highlights the power of one’s argument.
That’s what I was taught. And that approach is still taught everywhere.
But I’m caught between that and another instinct.
This second instinct comes up when female students persist in using the male pronoun, or when I read something that is so bland I can barely stay awake–and my eyes drift to the top of the page and see the name of a student who I know isn’t bland. I look at those names and I notice that they are often female, people of color, kids who speak two or more languages.
And as I circle non-standard usage, I wonder if what I’m really looking for in that neutral, standard voice is actually me: white, male, bland.
It bothers me that we’re stuck, my students and I. They want to get good grades and be successful writers. I want the same for them.
But not at this price.
When I ask them to be tradional, what I’m really asking for is whiteness. Think about those words: traditional, standard, neutral. They’re all pointing in the same direction.
Why do we read, teach, and celebrate the distinctive voices of Zora Hurston, Jamaica Kincaid, and Gloria Anzaldua, only to turn around and tell our students that they shouldn’t write this way for the exam? That these brilliant writers and their voices should be relegated to the “creative” category, rather than using them to show our students that serious arguments don’t always come from “neutral,” “traditional,” “standard” writers?
I hear the words above from Anzaldua every time my classes talk about voice, every time I circle something. And I know she’s right.
Rick Kreinbring (@) said many, many years ago that he would become a teacher because “English Major” didn’t sound like a job, and his father really wanted to see him get a job. Rick liked to read and he wrote a little, so he got his teaching certificate and he’s been working at it for over 20 years. Most of the time he’s at Avondale High School, trying to stay one step ahead of his students.